Hell on Wheels is taking a little break, but we have a treat to help you through the mini-hiatus. As we saw last week in “Return to Hell,” Ruth, who has been a center of calm in the fray of Hell on Wheels, responded to the loss of her son with grief, fury, and a gun. We were thrilled to speak with Kasha Kropinski this week about Ruth’s transformation, shooting Sidney Snow, and what’s next.
When Kropinski auditioned for Hell on Wheels back in the first season, Ruth was only slated for a few episodes, and three years later, she is, very happily, still here. “Originally my character was only supposed to be a guest star. When I auditioned, the breakdown said the character was to be featured in five episodes in season one,” she recalls. “After season one, I had no idea whether I was coming back. And then I came back for seasons two, three, and four, and every year, it’s an enormous surprise.”
She says shooting on location in Calgary helps inform the time period of the show, and sometimes the weather even gets in on the action. “It feels as if you are living in the 1900s if you disregard the technology. The set is incredibly realistic. You can walk into any room on set and there will be all of the relevant accoutrements,” she points out. “In the railway office, there are ledgers and pencils. It truly feels as if you’re living the lives of these characters. In the first couple of seasons, we did work [indoors] on set. The last couple of seasons, we’ve shot exclusively on location and it makes a difference. Everything feels completely and utterly authentic. You can dive in and immerse yourself.”
During filming of “Return to Hell,” the weather effects ended up onscreen. “When I shot Sidney…the peplum on my blouse, and my hair is blowing, and that literally happened in that one take and it was so perfect,” says Kropinski. “The weather has been a character in the show and contributed to the performances.”
“[In the scene where we bury Ezra], when I put my head on Cullen’s shoulder, the sunset was exploding behind us. That was completely by accident. We had to wait several hours because of a dangerous thunderstorm. We had started the scene and then we had to break and wait in our trailers. [After the storm passed], we had to work extremely quickly because the sun was setting, and that was the last shot we could get. For me, that’s the best part of the episode. It was so gorgeous.”
She wasn’t looped on Ezra’s death, and Ruth’s response, ahead of time, and only found out with everyone else when the cast were given their scripts for the episode. “We usually receive the script the first day of the current episode, so a week before. Prior to receiving the script, thoughts were starting to swell in my head about the Sidney and Ruth storyline because there were some hints of danger. I read it and I was not expecting Ruth to shoot him,” she says.
“Obviously, the most shocking and horrific aspect was Ezra’s death and my stomach dropped when I read that. It was a literal shock to read that. It’s such a tragic, devastating, horrible episode, and emotionally draining, but when I read it, I felt so inspired and invigorated and I couldn’t wait to start filming. Especially because Billy Gierhart (who has directed The Walking Dead and Sons of Anarchy) was our director. I adore him. He’s phenomenal, brilliant, fantastic, genius. When I saw his name on the script, I knew I was in good hands.”
The shooting scene required Kropinski to learn to handle a gun comfortably, and although it didn’t make the final cut of the episode, she says they did do a take of her actually pulling the trigger. “Filming that episode was incredibly exhilarating. When we shot it, it took all day. We only got to the reveal at the end of the day. I’d done it so many way, and so many different angles, and the technical details of Jonathan [Scarfe]’s squibs…it was a very laborious and deliberate process,” she recalls.
“When we got to my coverage, I was so revved up, and it sort of culminated and I felt suspended in time. It was such an intense, visceral, and astonishing sensation. I don’t know where it came from. Everything felt electric and alive. So far [in the history of the show], that scene was pretty special to film.”
Kropinski says the lack of physicality between Bohannon and Ruth wasn’t intentional, and wasn’t scripted, but she took notice when she watched the episode. “We didn’t actually talk about that at all. Watching the episode, it’s so interesting to me the things that didn’t occur to me [during filming] that appear quite evidently onscreen. When I was watching, I [realized] he doesn’t extend himself that way and he doesn’t reassure her through physicality. He attempts to reassure her emotionally and psychologically, [but] he doesn’t step into that territory or cross that boundary,” she says.
“We’ll see [more of their relationship] and that growth and progress and development in the upcoming episodes in terms of how Cullen sees Ruth,” she promises. “[Because] Ruth grew up [sheltered] and…was somewhat poisoned by the influence of her [violent] brothers and her violent father…she’s had to develop a sturdiness, resolve, and strength, so she doesn’t necessarily rely on other people to comfort her or help her because she realized in her life nobody is going to do that for you except yourself.”
“When this tragedy befalls Ruth and she literally has nothing left, she doesn’t expect Cullen’s comfort. I don’t think it occurs to her that he doesn’t offer himself to her. It’s not part of the equation. I don’t think she even thinks she deserves comfort. She takes responsibility for the death of her child. But watching the episode, [the fact that they do not touch] is so obvious.”
Speaking of Ruth’s violent father, Kropinski loved working with Tom Noonan, who played the Reverend. “He’s an alien in the best sense of the word. Ever since he left, I’ve been telling them, ‘Can’t he haunt the town? We need a village ghost,'” she laughs. “That was just an extraordinary privilege to work with him and learn from him and witness his astounding beauty and be able to do scenes with him.”
Kropinski is excited about the rest of this season, and the arc that started with “Return to Hell.” “[These episodes] have been the most fulfilling. Ruth has something to do. She’s always been a bit of a bystander, an observer, the meek little church mouse, and now she’s come roaring forward with this incredibly decisive action and I don’t think anybody expected that,” she says. “In the upcoming episodes, we will learn a great deal about Ruth and we will plumb the depths of who she is. “You basically see her bare bones, and we get down to her core.”
We’re ready, but we’ll have to wait a few weeks. Hell on Wheels returns to AMC on Saturday, November 8th. You can catch full episodes of season four, including “Return to Hell,” on AMC’s website.
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